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Royal Navy in the Spotlight for Pulling Parts Out of Disabled Carrier

HMS Prince of Wales berthing with tug assistance
HMS Prince of Wales during trials (Royal Navy file image)

Published Apr 26, 2023 10:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

Media in the UK have discovered that the Royal Navy is cannibalizing components from the sidelined carrier HMS Prince of Wales for use on her sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. This is a common practice in the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy, typically used to keep a deployable ship ready for operations while the donor ship is down for maintenance - but in this case the parts-swapping is making big headlines. 

The components removed from Prince of Wales include chains from her aircraft elevators and some of the advanced fuel filter systems that feed her gas turbine engines, according to independent news site Navy Lookout. 

In a statement, the Royal Navy noted that parts swapping is a common way to sustain warships of the same class. "It allows ships to remain operationally available and avoids issues such as production delays for bespoke equipment," a spokesperson told UK media.

The circumstances of this particular donor vessel are uncommon, however, and were already a source of controversy. 

High-profile breakdown

Prince of Wales is one-half of the Royal Navy's bid to return to carrier aviation, and her recent breakdown has drawn considerable attention. In August 2022, the carrier was set to begin a high-profile voyage across the Atlantic for joint exercises with the U.S. Navy. Shortly after departure from Portsmouth, however, Prince of Wales was forced to anchor due to propulsion problems. Inspections revealed that a coupling had failed on her starboard shaft, causing significant damage to the shaft and propeller, with superficial damage to the rudder.

On drydocking, engineers determined that the root cause was an alignment problem with the starboard shaft. The port side propeller shaft was found to have similar misalignment problems, requiring similar repairs and adding to the cost. The UK Ministry of Defence is investigation the source of the issue and whether the misalignment problem may have been known during construction; however, the Royal Navy has told media that both shafts "remained within the established limits" at the time of installation. 

The work to make the repairs is under way and the carrier is scheduled to return to service this fall. All going well, Prince of Wales will go from "acting as a scrap yard" - as the Daily Mail described her status - to taking over as the flagship of the fleet. When current flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth enters her next yard period in 2024, HMS Prince of Wales is in line to take up that banner. 

Prince of Wales has had a rough run since her delivery in 2019. The Royal Navy declared her fully operational in 2021, but she was forced into drydock for eight months due to an electrical problem in late 2020. Though her troubles appear minor when compared with the teething issues that the U.S. Navy had with USS Gerald R. Ford, these challenges have kept Prince of Wales at the pier more often than not. 

“Taken together with severe delays to the new Type 26 frigate, cost overruns on the new Type 31 frigate and long-running propulsion problems on the Type 45 destroyer, the additional problems on HMS Prince of Wales shows that procurement and maintenance of His Majesty’s ships is now a total mess," Commons Defence Committee MP Mark Francois told Express. 

Any attempts at cost recovery from the shipbuilder may prove challenging, as the consortium that constructed the two carriers no longer exists. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance -  a partnership between defense companies BAE Systems, Babcock International, and Thales Group - was formed for the purpose of building the vessels and dissolved at the end of the project.